Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Bartlett Richards: Nebraska Sandhills Cattleman. By Bartlett Richards, Jr. with Ruth Van Ackeren. Lincoln, Nebraska: The Nebraska State Historical Society, 1980. Appendix. End Notes. Illustrations. Maps. 289 pages. $12.00.
Reviewed by Gene E. Hamaker, Professor of History at Kearney State College, Kearney, Nebraska and Director of the Kearney Center for Archives and History. Dr. Hamaker has written books and articles upon local and regional history of the Great Plains.
Recipient of the Western Heritage Center’s prize for best non-fiction book on western history in 1980, Bartlett Richards merits the award for its readability and general interest. Although sub-titled “Sandhills Cattleman,” Richards’ experiences are those of all the successful Great Plains cattlemen who built ranching empires based upon western land and eastern capital. His story, and that of the ranching industry, is told around a series of letters written between 1879 and 1911. These letters are supported by research in newspapers, manuscripts, reminiscences and standard works on the open range ranching era. About a half of he book delineates the background of the Richards family, Bartlett’s youth in Massachusetts and his first years in Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. The remaining chapters and three appendices are devoted to the controversies over fencing the public land and the alleged fraudulent land entries that shadowed his last years. Richards, one of the few to be tried on these issues by the federal government, pled guilty to the former and was lightly punished and was convicted of the latter, fined and sentenced to one year in prison where he died.
As a cattleman, Richards seems to have become quickly more of an entrepreneur than a practicing rancher. He was absorbed in deals for land, cattle, and capital, all of which necessitated a great deal of travel and long periods of separation from his family. It is not possible to say how much responsibility he shared for the organization and efficient operation of the Spade ranch. He did live and work on the ranch and he was certainly fully aware of what a sound operation entailed. After his marriage in 1897, he and his family began wintering in California, building a home at Coronado in 1902. His wife and children seem to have spent most of their time at Coronado, even during his trials and imprisonment. This enabled Richards to conceal from his children the fact of his imprisonment. The Richards’ Coronado house, somewhat enlarged by later owners, is a present-day highlight of historic home tours in San Diego.
The letters, which form the framework of the book, tell us a good deal about the character of the man and his strong ties to his family, but include little about the business of ranching. There is nothing of substance in them about the controversies of his last years. Indeed, when approached by the press, or given an opportunity to speak in the court room, Richards preferred to let his partner, W.G. Comstock, explain their position on the leasing or fencing of public lands, or the practices used to secure title to strategic land holdings.
Richards’ point of view, and that of the other great cattlemen, is presented at length by the authors. Their review of the fencing and land entry controversies is frankly biased. They justify this approach as an antidote to the persisting unsympathetic image of Richards derived from contemporary newspapers and such accounts as that found in Addison E. Sheldon, Land Systems and Land Policies in Nebraska, 1936. There is none of the cool dispassion of the historian; this is a hot-blooded defense. The villains are the farmers and Kinkaiders foolishly attempting to cultivate the sand-hills, the Easterners (even those in eastern Nebraska) ignorant of conditions in the grazing lands, the small ranchers, the intemperate press, and President Theodore Roosevelt. The cattlemen were guilty as charged, but only technically so. The inadequate land laws, the loose administration of those laws, and the conditions of the time dictated the cattlemen’s behavior. Moreover, the cattlemen understood and loved the land. They developed the grazing lands, fencing and cross-fencing to maintain pastures and hay land, drilling wells and raising windmills, and improving the quality of their cattle. They were also often generous to the small rancher and the farmer. The reader will look elsewhere for a thorough study of the open range cattle industry and its demise. That is not the object of the authors. Here we have Bartlett Richards’ story as a cattleman, builder and victim of circumstance and from that the reader can gain insight and understanding.